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An Invitation Best Refused

It wasn’t exactly on my bucket list — unless you’re redefining the term to mean “stuff that makes me want to puke when I think about enduring it” — but I can now say I’ve been through an Opening Day that I was dreading.

Dreading Opening Day? What a bizarre thing for a lifelong fan to say. Yet that’s what I was doing while waiting for Mets/Royals at Kauffman Stadium and the beginning of the 2016 campaign.

It’s not baseball’s fault — the Mets and the Royals were locked into a season kickoff last summer, when nobody knew what the fates had in store, and rejiggering team schedules sounds easy until you actually try it.

Nor was any of the variously excruciating, annoying and exasperating pregame pomp and circumstance the fault of the Royals. They did what they should have done for their loyalists, and I thought they did it well. The Royals are a great team I gladly would have cheered for in October if not for the zero-sum problem involved, I love the goofball pageantry of flag-raising and gold lettering and trophies on display, and their fans had waited 30 years for a chance to coronate their heroes in their home park. I was miserable, but I managed to be happy for them, from the dude with moose horns to the fans pointing gleefully at Salvy Perez [1]‘s gilded shin guards.

It wasn’t ESPN’s fault either, though by the fourth inning I was ready to hurl Dan Shulman, Aaron Boone [2] and Jessica Mendoza off a nearby suburban overpass (of which one can choose many [3]). Relentless narrative, after all, is what ESPN does.

My blog partner may have been elated [4], but I felt like I’d received an invitation to a party I really didn’t want to attend, knew would be super-awkward and painful, and yet couldn’t get out of. I’d been brooding about it off and on during the Mets’ alternately dopey and sleepy spring training, knowing there was no outcome that would satisfy me. If the Mets blitzed the Royals by a dozen runs, I’d demand to know why that couldn’t have happened a few months ago; if they lost, it would feel like a cruel Game 6 — a mean-spirited addendum to a series already down the toilet.

Either way, I was sure, it was going to suck.

What I didn’t dare guess — because it seemed too cruel — was it would suck pretty much exactly the way the World Series sucked. This was ripping off the Band-Aid to discover not pink and slightly delicate skin, but a wound that was still bloody and festering.

I went a little catatonic after the World Series, retreating into creating Lost Mets baseball cards [5] and the comforting routines of work. I never quite figured out why, but I can grasp the broad outlines of the problem. It starts with the fact that I’ve always dismissed the World Series as a fun but silly exhibition series, seeing the pennant as the real prize. The 2015 Mets 2.0 — who didn’t exist before the end of July and never quite stopped feeling like strange new arrivals to me — won that pennant rather handily, surviving a ridiculously dramatic and harrowing series with the Dodgers before beating the Cubs as badly as one team can beat another.

Which was so, so awesome — all the more so for the long wait and the sheer unlikeliness of it all.

And then those same Mets went and turned in one of the worst weeks of baseball they’d given us all year.

You saw it: alternately incompetent and tragic fielding, inept baserunning, dunderheaded quick pitches, meek hitting, bad managerial decisions, and no shortage of rotten luck. It was dreadful, and as things cratered I tried to tell myself not to fall prey to the narrative. I reminded myself that I laugh at dumb talk-radio fans who confuse a bad few days of baseball with a failure of virtue, a pallid will to win, or any of that other tired Goose Gossage bullshit.

But it’s easy to laugh in May or June. Turns out it’s tougher in October.

It’s a lot tougher in October.

I sulked about it for a while, waited for the feeling to fade, and when it stubbornly persisted … well, I didn’t quite know what to do. And I still don’t.

But I do know this much: the antidote to this particular fan’s illness was not kicking off April with the same two teams and the same two starting pitchers.

Which leads me back to the narrative: If the Mets had drawn any of the other 28 possible opponents for this Opening Day, the in-game chatter would have been all about the team’s giddy success and the parade of stud pitchers and the feel-good returns of Yoenis Cespedes [6] and Bartolo Colon [7] and how Wilmer Flores [8] cried and stayed and how now the promised land was within reach.

Instead, the Mets drew the only opponent that ensured a different narrative: one that was all about the Royals’ triumphs and the Mets’ failures, crystallized by poor Lucas Duda [9] taking aim at a spectator and Travis d’Arnaud [10] spinning vainly to catch the uncatchable.

The best revenge would have been to kick the narrative in the teeth, and leave Shulman and Co. awkwardly trying to cram an increasingly square peg in a round hole. A fine plan, except the Mets turned in a performance eerily reminiscent of the World Series that I can’t manage to get over.

I mean, it was like baseball plagiarism: There was Matt Harvey [11] once again looking out in first-inning amazement at Cespedes and a ball fielded with horrific negligence. There were Royal grounders sneaking through holes and just eluding Met defenders in the bottoms of innings, followed by the aggravatingly familiar sight of Eric Hosmer [12] and Mike Moustakas [13] smothering tough hops in the tops of innings, transforming run-scoring singles into rally-snuffing outs.

Yes, the Mets made things interesting late, but their uprising started as farce and ended as tragedy [14].

The eighth inning looked like one of those hollow baseball moral victories, with Duda and Michael Conforto [15] grabbing a page from Kansas City’s playbook and dropping little bloops that found grass. The ninth inning, though, turned bleak and wintry: Curtis Granderson [16] and Cespedes sandwiched excellent at-bats around a helpless, dreadful showing by David Wright [17] that marooned the tying run at third. It’s only one game and it would be unfair to make more of it than that, but Wright had an awful day — besides the strikeout, his bat was slow on several pitches he should have crushed and his arm was short on two infield plays.

ESPN’s sledgehammer narrative, if anything, wasn’t delivered relentlessly enough. And what was guaranteed to be a bittersweet evening at best turned out to be one of those soul-curdling losses that leave you shaking your head and waiting for a better game, one that will disperse the little black cloud created by this one.

Unfortunately, the next chance at that will be against these same Royals, and against this same narrative. Didn’t like the party? Then you’re not going to like Tuesday’s shindig either. But once again, our attendance is mandatory.